08/22/2018 by Michael Brosnan |

On Grit and a Growth Mindset

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Earlier this month, I met up with a talented educator I’ve known for years. He was passing through town on a visit to another friend and asked if we could get lunch. He came to the restaurant looking relaxed, but surprised me by saying he had to take a medical leave of absence from his school.

“The pressure of the job was so terrible,” he said, “my health was at risk.”

I didn’t push for details, but what he told me is an increasingly familiar story. Over-the-top parental pressure on his school created internal pressure, especially on efforts to run a diverse school well. He felt under attack weekly. He wasn’t sleeping. His blood pressure was high. And solutions to the communal tensions were nowhere in sight. The job literally was killing him.

In this same week, I met up with a wonderful public school educator I know who left teaching for good last year after enduring excessive pressure from both parents and the school principal. This is a talented educator who has been serving students well for years, even as budgets and staffing were being slashed and her workload increased. She spoke of similar health issues and the need to get away from the work she loved.

On the other side of this coin of stress, I’ve also met with students who have felt pressure of a different sort, especially in independent schools. Now in college, they have a perspective on the system of education they were asked to endure. Some said they are still trying to recover from the anxiety, stress, and, in some cases, depression they experienced in the daily pressure to over-achieve in high school.

For me, of course, this is heartbreaking news. I know this doesn’t account for every educator’s and student’s experience today. But the shared stories of feeling pressured to the breaking point are piling up. And there’s plenty of research to suggest that these aren’t isolated incidents.

Recently, Pat Bassett, former president of NAIS, tweeted about this being one of the central problems independent schools face today: “Two challenges that independent schools are not addressing well, or at all, are (1) Growing rate of anxiety and depression among school-age students at all levels; (2) marketing and messaging that misses the point because it focuses on ‘features’ of the program, and not ‘outcomes’ for students.”

As we head into another academic year, I hope we can do more to address the issues of pressure on both students and adults. Even better, I would love it if schools could start to think of themselves as sanctuaries from the pressure of life in modern-day America. I don’t mean to suggest that schools should stop striving to be centers of educational excellence. What I’d like to see are schools that aim to optimize the learning experience. To do so, educators need to be on their game and students need to feel engaged in positive ways. And everyone needs to feel physically and emotionally safe.

These conditions are inherent in the mission statement of every school. They are often spelled out in pedagogical principles. But they can be undermined by larger cultural forces that tend to subjugate desired outcomes to cultural anxieties or, in public schools, political pressure.

There are numerous ways to address the question of over-pressurized students and teachers. Here, I’d like to focus on the question of grit and a growth mindset. Both of these qualities are generally considered good — and necessary for learning. Grit has come to the forefront as a social-emotional quality worth cultivating if one wants to succeed in school and life. Ditto for a growth mindset. Schools are rightly finding ways to infuse both into their programs. They consider both as essential elements of both achievement and character education.

The notion of grit has been around a long time, of course. But the idea that students would benefit from having grit — and that schools could help cultivate grit in students — has come back into fashion based on the research and writing of Angela Duckworth, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and promoted in numerous other works, mostly notably in Paul Tough’s “How Children Succeed.”

While Duckworth has highlighted the role of grit in education, Carol Dweck, at Stanford University, has been writing and speaking on the differences between fixed and growth mindset in school — and why the latter is best for learning. Dweck describes the growth mindset as “the power of yet” — the ability to see learning as a pathway. By trusting the process of developing skills and knowledge, one is able to tackle challenging problems and develop increasingly sophisticated skills. The opposite, she says, is the “tyranny of now” — the fixed mindset that believes intelligence is more or less set at an early age and difficult challenges are only proof of one's limits, not potential.

Having grit and a growth mindset more or less go hand in hand with learning, and most schools today have found a way to infuse the concepts into their programs. Many mention them in their literature.

The problems only arise when adults in school get too fixated on the idea that students need to develop grit to stick it out in all instances — regardless of how they feel, regardless of what they are being asked to do, or whether they are being asked to do too much. In over-pressurized schools, too many students are losing sleep and living in a state of steady anxiety. They are being asked to grow their minds too quickly — often times to make the school look good on paper. If persistence is being cultivated in order for students to slog through hours of work that is too hard or has no relevance to their lives — or appears to have no relevance — we are setting students up for an eventual fall. None of us can persist at tasks we don’t care about for long without feelings of exhaustion and resentment settling in.

The challenge for educators, of course, is balance. It’s better to have grit and a growth mindset than to quit when a challenge gets hard. However, we have also begun to see that an obsession with grit and growth doesn’t make for the best education policy or the healthiest child. Children should not lose out on sleep. Children should not wake up every morning and think they need to tough it out or else lose any future prospects to children from India or China. They should not, in fact, think of education as a competition against their classmates and all other students in every other school in the world. That’s not how they learn or thrive. That’s how they become anxious and neurotic. While grit in the right proportions is no doubt a good thing, the exaggerated version of it can be damaging. It can undermine not only our health but also our desire to learn or achieve.

In a recent article, “How I Learned About the Perils of Grit,” writer Todd B. Kashdan notes the research on the negative effects of too much grit. He highlights what psychologists call “John Henryism” based on the American folk figure, John Henry. In the folk tale, John Henry was legendary for working hard. In a race against a steam drill to see who could lay down more railroad track in a day, John Henry wins, then dies in exhaustion.

John Henryism is, essentially, an unhealthy, obsessive commitment to a goal. According to Kashdan, it can and often does result in high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, poor memory, and worsening executive function. He also notes research that makes it clear that excessive grittiness in disadvantaged people is particularly bad. “People with the greatest hardships who are given the message that they just need to be a bit grittier, suffer greatly,” Kashdan writes.

A problem with grit that results in a kind of determined tunnel vision is that it also prevents us from getting alternative perspectives on a topic or issue or job. Kashdan argues, along with other psychologists, that we need a “psychological Swiss Army knife” of tools that we can use as needed. These tools include adaptability, curiosity, reflection, and social connection.

Angela Duckworth will tell you that her version of grit is not about John Henryism at all. Yes, she thinks students need to learn how to work hard. She describes grit as combining ambition, resilience, and self-control in the pursuit of goals. But, in school at least, there should always be sensible limits and a high level of personal interest. She will tell you, it’s wrong to use her research on grit to blame students for their failures. There are always sociological, psychological, and personal aspects that play a role in any student’s experience. Mostly important, she makes it clear that grit isn’t the only quality of mind that students need for success and happiness in school and life. Qualities such as honesty, humility, kindness, creativity, and open-mindedness matter, too.

Duckworth has started a nonprofit, the Character Lab, to examine the ways we think about and teach grit and other character qualities. As she says, it’s complicated — and, as educators, it’s not enough to read a book or watch a TED Talk.

Meanwhile, in helping to support a growth mindset, Dweck is not asking us to push children to use a growth mindset to overachieve. Rather, she wants us to instill a growth mindset so students and can become the best versions of themselves. She encourages us to praise children wisely — for the process of learning: their effort, strategies, focus, and improvement. Our goal should be to help them develop their own learning skills to manage challenges without us. Doing so makes them hardy and resilient and they develop the persistence to take on challenges, especially challenges that matter to them. The latter three words are essential.

I know educators and school leaders wrestle with question of how much work — in school and out — is the right amount for children at various age groups. I hope this year, we can pay more attention to — be more mindful of — the lines. In many cases, schools are doing this by firmly connecting their stated missions to their practices and outcomes. It also helps to open up adult discussions about the full spectrum of qualities we hope to instill in students and make this a central part of their education.

At the same time, I also hope that administrators will think more this year about the workplace experiences of their teachers. It’s never going to be an easy profession. I think that’s part of the attraction of teaching. But when long-time, highly experienced educators are telling me that school cultures have gotten so bad that they feel the only choice for them is to leave the profession, I think we need to take a closer look at the adult culture in our schools. Well-functioning teachers, like well-functioning students, should not be under the kinds of pressures that make them physically ill. That should be clear enough.

As we start engaging in conversation about our hopes for this new school year, I hope educators can talk with each other about what, collectively, we want to achieve as adults. What do we mean by excellence in school? Are we doing the best we can to support not only our students’ intellectual and social-emotional growth but also the professional growth and social-emotional health of adults who dedicate their lives to this essential work? Do we know what sort of school culture we want — and are we truly cultivating that culture in our classrooms and community?

Michael Brosnan is an independent writer and editor with a particular interest in education and social change. His latest book of poetry, “The Sovereignty of the Accidental,” was recently published by Harbor Mountain Press. He can be reached at michaelbrosnan54@gmail.com.

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